Leading neurosurgeon tells the Hay Festival cycling helmets are ‘too flimsy’ to be beneficial
A leading neurosurgeon has controversially claimed that cyclists who wear helmets are wasting their time.
Henry Marsh, who works at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, London, said that many of his patients who have been involved in bike accidents have been wearing helmets that were ‘too flimsy’ to be beneficial.
He made the comments while speaking at the Hay Festival during a discussion with Ian McEwan, whose 2005 novel Saturday featured a neurosurgeon.
He cited evidence from the University of Bath that suggests that wearing a helmet may even put cyclists at greater risk. The research showed that drivers get around 3 inches closer to cyclists who wear helmets because they perceive them as safer.
He said: “I ride a bike and I never wear a helmet. In the countries where bike helmets are compulsory there has been no reduction in bike injuries whatsoever.
“I see lots of people in bike accidents and these flimsy little helmets don’t help.”
Mr Marsh said that he had been riding his bike for 40 years, wearing a cowboy hat, and had only fallen off once.
“I have been cycling for 40 years and have only been knocked off once. I wear a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. I look completely mad.”
Cyclists travel around 3.1 billion miles each year in Britain. Lights and reflectors are a legal obligation after dark, and reflective jackets an increasingly common sight.
But helmets are not compulsory in the UK, unlike in Australia and parts of the US, yet the government encourages cyclists to wear one.
Research conducted by Dr Ian Walker, a professor of traffic psychology at the University of Bath, showed that motorists drove around 8cm closer when overtaking cyclists with helmets.
He suggested that drivers think helmeted cyclists are more sensible, predicable and experienced, so therefore the driver doesn’t need to give them much space when overtaking.
Non-helmeted cyclists, especially non helmeted “women” are less predictable and experienced, according to this study and so motorists give them more room.
However, Mr Marsh’s comments are likely to anger cycling safety campaigners, who believe that helmets provide essential protection on Britain’s busy and narrow roads.
James Cracknell, the Olympic rowing gold medalist, was nearly killed while cycling in 2010 after he was hit by a petrol tanker.
He has said that he only survived the accident because he had been wearing a helmet and has described those who do not wear one as “selfish” as their actions can impact their loved ones.
“From a personal point of view I would be dead if I hadn’t worn a helmet,” he said. “A wing mirror smashed into my skull at 70mph.
“There is no downside to wearing a helmet except having messy hair. And you have to remember that eight out of ten kids who have cycling accidents are not on the road.
“Even if you don’t care enough about yourself to wear a helmet other people care about you.”
A Department of Transport study has shown that helmets could prevent 10-16 per cent of cyclist fatalities, although this was also an estimate based on a small study.
Angie Lee, Chief Executive of the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust said: “I hope he is going to take responsibility for the cyclist who gets injured because they take their helmet off following his comments.
“This may be his opinion but there are a lot more neurosurgeons and surgeons who would counter that argument.
“My advice would be the same as the Department of Transport’s which is that helmets have a place in protecting the head.”
Marsh, who retires in March, also admitted jumping red lights to get ahead of the traffic.
“It’s my life at risk,” he said, ‘So I regularly cross over red lights.”